Prevention is better than cure

Tech entrepreneur Jelle Van De Velde and doctor Servaas Bingé, senior doctor for the Lotto Soudal cycling team, got talking more than two years ago when Jelle wanted to walk the 10 Miles and visited Servaas for a preventive sports examination consultation. “The dashboard in your car tells you how things are looking at any given moment. Warning lights indicate problems with the engine, the oil pressure or the tyre pressure and let you know when maintenance is required,” says Jelle. “We wondered whether we could do something similar for the human body.” That was the beginning of their start-up, Emma Health, a digital platform for data-driven, personalised preventive healthcare. Our ‘Accelerating Your Healthcare Start-up’ programme gave their start-up a boost.

Servaas Bingé (Emma Health)Emma Health’s objective is ambitious: to put preventive healthcare on the map. “In our healthcare system, there is currently still too much focus on curative care,” Servaas explains. “Only 2% of the budget is spent on prevention. I speak from experience when I say that it is difficult for GPs to deliver good prevention. Our system makes this very time-consuming and it therefore happens too little. We want to facilitate high-quality prevention through Emma Health.”

A consultation with the chatbot

How do they do that? “We have developed a journey and our platform, Emma, guides you through the various steps of the process,” says Servaas. “First of all, a chatbot gathers information about your subjective health using a questionnaire. We then look at biomarkers in your blood. By combining all this information, we obtain a risk profile, which we display in a health dashboard. We therefore chart your risk of cardiovascular and lung disease, diabetes, obesity, cancer and stress and burn-out - diseases that cost society a lot of money.”

“We then use this dashboard to provide personalised and medically validated health advice about nutrition, exercise, sleep and mental wellbeing - advice that you hopefully then take to heart. Emma also lets you know whether your efforts are paying off: your risk profile is periodically recalculated and you can therefore follow your progress. In short, with Emma Health we support prevention by increasing health consciousness.”

The same language

A lot has happened since that sports examination consultation in March 2016. Today the team consists of 14 other employees in addition to Jelle and Servaas: two doctors, one of whom develops the algorithms while the other focuses on monitoring stress and burn-out; data scientists who turn the first-line algorithms developed by doctors into data algorithms; designers and software specialists who develop the platform; sales and marketing employees and a legal adviser. Most of them took part in the 'Accelerating your healthcare start-up' boot camp along with Jelle and Servaas. One part of the team attended the sessions in Ghent and the other part attended in London. 

“We have diverse backgrounds and experience,” says Jelle. “It seemed like a good idea to learn to speak the same language as a team and most importantly to give our doctors and technical employees a chance to familiarise themselves with business and economics jargon.” Servaas chuckles as he thinks back: “So I found myself in London with two doctor colleagues and a lawyer. At one point I rang Jelle to tell him that we wanted to come home, that it was all going over our heads. He convinced us to stick with it, which was lucky in the end.”

Momentum

The boot camp helped Emma Health gain momentum. “With two teams, in Ghent and London, we used the boot camp to complete a few sprints - well-defined projects that each brought us a step further,” Servaas recalls.
Jelle nods. “In fact, we are still working according to the Lean Start-up method: we listen to the market, to what people need and expect from our systems, and then we develop this step by step. We aim for a minimum viable product that we develop iteratively and incrementally.”

Jelle Van De Velde (Emma Health)“During the boot camp we learnt to understand each other much better,” he continues. “What we do is not actually product innovation but business-model innovation - we combine healthcare with technology and marketing. The boot camp provided us with insight into each other’s business impact and offered us support with implementing design-thinking principles to solve problems, not only during those two weeks but long after too - we still use these techniques.”

Feet on the ground

So Jelle and Servaas would recommend the healthcare boot camp without reservation. “It is the only training of its type in Belgium. And not only is the network that you build up valuable, the coaching by experts and the professors at Vlerick and Imperial College is too,” says Servaas.

The input they received kept their feet on the ground, according to Jelle: “It was painful to hear that what we were doing wasn't all perfect. But it was precisely this feedback that allowed us to make the right choices and to raise our business model and the platform to the right level. The boot camp is a good reality check. And now we need to get down to work. Your ideas might be brilliant, but you have to get out there. The ultimate test is the market.”

Pilot

In September, the time will have come: the platform will go live in a test environment, in cooperation with a number of corporate partners, Servaas explains: “They will offer around 200 employees the opportunity to use the system. As an employer, it is very important to them that their employees are fit and healthy.”

“For us, this is the ideal way to refine the customer journey and test and validate the science and medicine behind the platform, without having to approach investors or the government. After all, our partners pay for use of the system. The cash flow that this pilot project generates will also help Emma Health take a step further financially,” Jelle concludes.

Want to find out more?
Emma Health was one of the six start-ups that participated in the first edition of the 'Accelerating your healthcare start-up' programme. See also ‘Healthcare Boot Camp Brings Self-testing a Step Closer’ in which Bart Geers of Antelope Diagnostics talks about his experience.

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